Patrice Nganang traveled for weeks in the country of western Cameroon in 2017, doing research for the last book of his monumental trilogy about the complete history of his country.
The book, “A Trail of Crab Tracks,” traces the birth of independent Cameroon in the 1960s and its descent into civil war. Nganang, 52, wanted to get the details right, from the knowledge of guerrilla fighters in the forest to the names of plants and local rivers.
“I was very careful,” Nganang said last month as heavy rain fell outside his New Jersey home. “I didn’t want an old man to read it and say, ‘My son. Not right!’” His laugh, like thunder, filled the room.
What he had learned, he said, was the past: the deep divisions sown during the colonial era remained in the country and threatened to erupt into conflict.
Western Cameroon is English-speaking, and when he met the people there, he encountered growing opposition to the Francophone government of Paul Biya, who had been in power since 1982. division of the country after independence.
“The government is declaring war and suppressing Anglophone protests,” he said. “They didn’t start killing.”
Now, he added, “there are 20,000 dead.”
Nganang wrote about what he saw and heard – and was detained at the airport in Yaoundé, the capital, as he tried to leave the country. Held in hiding for three weeks, Nganang feared for his life. He was also worried about his ongoing work. “They kept my computer, with all my research. I thought, ‘Oh, no, now I’ve lost the record!'” he said. “But I didn’t.”
After being released and expelled from the country, Nganang came out with a deep sense of his important project: the analysis of the national identity of Cameroon, and how the seeds of the great promise and the curse.
In the first novel of the trilogy, “Mount Pleasant,” which was published in the United States in 2016, Nganang brought to life Sultan Njoya’s Palace of Dreams, a magical gathering of artists and facts that fell in the colonial turf wars carved into the. country in the years leading up to World War I. (Cameroon was claimed by Germany in the late 19th century, but in 1919 it was divided into French and British territories by the League of Nations. ) The second story, “When the Plums Are Ripe” followed in 2019 and celebrates the Cameroonian soldiers who fought with the Allies in World War II.
“When you look at these times and the three generations,” explained Nganang, “you see that each one of Cameroon has a dream. Each one has a different map because the map of Cameroon has changed over the years. All the time. So their dreams are not aligned, and are ready for the fight.
“Cameroon’s dream is contradictory,” he continued, “because on the one hand you have this violence and violence and you have this utopian idea: ‘Let’s dream big !’ That resistance has always inspired me, and I think it is an expression of the Cameroonian character, perhaps the African character.
At the end of the second story, the independence struggle was nothing but bad news and debates about the future of Cameroon. alone establishment. These arguments will be central to the final book, “A Trail of Crab Tracks,” as a military resistance movement fighting for a unified national identity. The story — written in French with a mix of pidgin and “Camfranglais” (urban dialect or vernacular), and translated by Nganang’s longtime collaborator, Amy Baram Reid – takes the circle to the nearest point.
“The three stories are like a cake: tripartite,” said Nganang. “They are very difficult, but I want them to be entertained.”
Complex and immersive, “Crab Tracks” is also playful, irreverent – a story of pogroms and camps, but also beautiful balls and brutal acts. “I always wanted to go back to ‘Madame Bovary’ and write a good story about sex,” he joked.
The story lines of the book are presented on two levels, closing the crablike between Obama-era America and newly independent Cameroon. In the modern episodes, the story revolves around Tanou, a Cameroonian student in New Jersey, and his widowed father, Nithap, who has extended visits after an accident. Their relationship is a secret relationship; A father and son live secret lives that strain their marriage. Nithap, as the reader slowly learns, spent years among the rebels of western Cameroon, a chapter unknown to his son, perhaps his greatest love.
The family history reflects the national history of silence and betrayal: The two are inextricably, and tragically, connected. “The Cameroonian soul is a battlefield,” said one man; Someone asked God to listen to his “prayer for this bloody land, for this family whose heart is tied to the riddle of the land.” The story also reflects Nganang’s own mature nature, he said.
“Families are complicated, and it’s a story I couldn’t write in my 20s,” she said. “I thought, ‘Let me write a book about my age now.’
Nganang, who is the director of American studies at Stony Brook University, borrowed from his own life for the story – from the daily activities of suburban America to the musical descriptions of his hometown. Yaoundé, his “mental state.” Yaoundé provides an evocative leitmotif in the trilogy: Nganang loves the city, neighborhood by neighborhood, while some areas flourish and others fall into ruin over time. . The epigraph to “When the Plums Are Ripe” The world is my country, Cameroon is my subject, and Yaoundé is my definition.
There is another part. The name “Tanou,” he said, means the “father of history” or someone “who makes history and tells it.” It is one of the main cattle names of Nganang. “Tanou” also refers to a cultural role, which he embraces in the media, as the self-proclaimed “Concierge of the Republic” (a nod, he says, to the symbol of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “Citizen of Geneva”).
“I would not at all He wrote this book if I wasn’t on social media,” he said, explaining the number of testimonies that Cameroonians around the world have shown him, which inspired him. in his posts and featured his book. “It changed me and changed the landscape of my writing because people could actually hear what I wanted to say.”
The social media has certainly given Nganang an important platform from afar in the country’s problems, including the ongoing battle with his English language. “I am a little myself in Cameroon, a Bamileke,” said Nganang, who has also reported from conflict zones in Mali, Rwanda and Liberia. “All the writings I do, all the political positions I have, are through the lens of a small position: How can it be defended? How can it be defined? How can it be a source of conflict?”
So where does that leave Nganang, who cannot return to Cameroon as long as Biya’s dictatorship remains? Nganang – true to the name “Tanou” – carries a long history.
“History is the backbone of everything we do, everything,” he said. “Are things going to change? Like the communities of Yaoundé, the poor today were rich yesterday and the rich today are poor. The reality of Cameroon, and Africa in general, is that nothing lasts forever. “